'The responsibility falls on me': Crean, Bulldogs seek answers after loss to Auburn

Kathryn Skeean | The Red & BlackGeorgia sophomore Sahvir Wheeler (2) gets high-fives from his teammates after shooting a free throw. The University of Georgia men’s basketball team faced Auburn and lost by a score of 95-77 on Wednesday in Athens, Georgia.

Where does Georgia begin?

The Georgia men’s basketball team is off to an 0-4 start in SEC play, capped by a second straight double-digit defeat in Wednesday night’s game against Auburn at Stegeman Coliseum. The Tigers, who were also vying for their first conference victory this season, outperformed Georgia in almost every statistical category to clench their 95-77 win.

It hardly ever felt like a contest, and the Bulldogs’ fate was virtually sealed within the first five minutes of the second half.

What happened?

Auburn crushed Georgia’s already dismal shooting percentage down to 41.8%, its second-lowest showing in conference action. The Tigers’ defense had a field day with Georgia and blocked 14 of the Bulldogs’ shots. That number is Division I’s highest this season.

But it gets worse for Georgia. The Bulldogs allowed Auburn more shots from the field than any of their other opponents (56.5%) behind a strong effort from Auburn freshman Sharife Cooper, who recorded his first double-double in what was his second game this season.

Is it a coaching issue? Georgia head coach Tom Crean said he puts a lot of the blame on himself. When asked how much of the weight he puts on his own shoulders, he answered with no hesitation.

“I would say the entire thing. That would be the answer,” Crean said. “I’m the head coach, so I guess the way you asked the question I would say the responsibility falls with me. Absolutely.”

The Tigers scored 29 points on the fast break and had six dunks come with ease. The Bulldogs’ transition defense couldn’t keep up with Auburn, and Crean knows that. He just didn’t know how to put those problems into words after the game. 

“I can’t explain that because that’s not how we do it,” Crean said in a five-minute virtual press conference. “I’ve got to coach it better, and we’re too quiet.” 

Fundamentally, Crean said Georgia’s poor transition defense resulted from the players’ lack of communication on the court. He took ownership of the problem.

“I guess I am responsible for the fact that our talk is not remotely close tonight to what it is in practice when it comes to how we get back in transition defense,” Crean said. “It’s got to get better in a hurry. … I’ve got to coach better.”

The player who had some spark on the Bulldogs’ defense, Crean said, was the one who hadn’t played a game at Georgia before Wednesday — freshman K.D. Johnson.

“You’ve got to start with being tough on the basketball,” Crean said. “Whether you’re getting under, whether you’re going over, whatever it is. K.D. brings that. K.D. brings a different spirit inside of that situation.”

Johnson was reinstated by the NCAA on Monday and was the lone bright spot in a dark abyss for Georgia. Offensively, he scored a team-high 21 points in his college debut along with seven rebounds and four steals.

But without the win, his breakout solo performance didn’t mean as much to him.

“I did OK,” Johnson said in a virtual postgame press conference. “We didn’t get the win, so that’s really what I was focused on. I wasn’t really focused on me.”

So what’s a concern beyond communication?

Crean said it’s belief. He said a 12- or 15-point deficit is “nothing” in college basketball, and he’s worried the Bulldogs lost faith when they fell behind in their last two contests.

Crean’s theory checks out. After falling to a 13-point deficit with 16 minutes left against Auburn, Georgia never fought back.

Sophomore Sahvir Wheeler, Georgia’s lead scorer on the season, knows he’s taken on a leadership role. He said he shoulders responsibility for the lack of consistency.

“That starts with me,” Wheeler said in a virtual press conference after the game. “Obviously, if I don’t do it, some other guys might follow my lead. I take blame for that — for not having the whole team ready or keeping those guys engaged throughout the whole game. That’s something we’re going to get better at.” 

Multiple ailments aren’t fixed with one prescription. Talking, believing and staying consistent are what Crean and the Bulldogs will focus on before their next game at Ole Miss on Saturday. And past those, Crean said there could be other adjustments ahead.

“I’ve got to look at who I’m playing,” Crean said. “I’ve got to look at combinations, and I may have to make some tough choices.”

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